Parliamentary and electoral reform

As the 2017 Parliament grapples with the constitutional challenges of Brexit, it will also have a range of internal ‘housekeeping’ and electoral issues to consider, with the potential to make Parliament look and feel very different at the next election.

Some issues are current (constituency boundary reviews and renovation of the Palace of Westminster). Others are on ‘pause’ but are always under discussion (House of Lords Reform and electoral reform). Changes have been proposed to how MPs support complaints about public services (draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill) and there are relatively new elements of parliamentary machinery already being tested (fixed-term parliaments).

2018 – new constituency boundaries to be proposed

The Coalition Government of 2010-15 pledged to create “fewer and more equal sized constituencies” and changed the Rules for Redistribution which guide reviews of the size of Parliamentary constituencies.

The new Rules state that there should be 600 constituencies, and determine the extent to which the size of the electorate in each constituency can differ from the average.

These new 600 seats were meant to be in place for the 2015 General Election but the 2013 Review (intended to be the first under the new Rules) was cancelled due to disagreements within the Coalition Government over constitutional reform.

The 2018 Review is underway and the early election has not affected the scheduled delivery of the reports to Government by 1 October 2018.

Once approved, the new boundaries must be implemented at a general election – now expected to be May 2022 rather than 2020. By-elections that are required in the meantime are held on the boundaries in place at the 2017 General Election.

House of Lords Reform – size and powers

Comprehensive reform of the House of Lords was not a priority for the Conservative Government in the 2015 Parliament. Nevertheless, questions about the size and powers of the House arose, leading to calls for change.

800 and counting

Peers regularly express frustrations about the size of the Lords, which currently has 800 members. In September 2015, the Leader of the House of Lords acknowledged that “the House cannot keep growing indefinitely.” In December 2016, the Lords agreed that its size should be reduced and the Lord Speaker appointed a committee of Back-Bench Peers to examine the practical and politically viable options. Both main parties have promised to address the size of the House in their manifestos.

A line crossed with tax credits?

In October 2015, the House of Lords prevented the Cameron Government from implementing its policy on tax credits by voting against the necessary changes to secondary legislation.

This led the Government to ask Lord Strathclyde to review secondary legislation and the primacy of the House of Commons. The review recommended a new statutory procedure to allow the Lords to ask the Commons to “think again”, when there was disagreement over a statutory instrument between the two Houses, thus removing the House of Lords’ power to prevent secondary legislation from being implemented. The Government found the review’s analysis to be “compelling” but indicated that “for now” it had no plans to introduce the necessary legislation.

However, if the Lords reject secondary legislation in future, plans to legislate could be revised.

Electoral reform – will any of it happen?

It’s been a very busy couple of years for electoral administrators, with frequent and often combined electoral events. This crammed timetable has highlighted the complexity of our current electoral processes.

Although on the surface all elections look similar, in reality there are separate rules and regulations for each type, which run to hundreds of pages of primary and secondary legislation.

Law Commission review

Electoral law has been described as “voluminous” by the Law Commission (the statutory body which keeps the statute book under review) and “no longer fit for purpose” by the Electoral Commission.

The last consolidation occurred in 1983 and the electoral landscape has been transformed since then.

The Law Commission’s 2016 interim review of electoral law made over 100 recommendations to simplify and consolidate all aspects of election administration and electoral registration. It is currently waiting for a government response.

Voter ID to combat electoral fraud?

In 2016 the previous Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, Sir Eric Pickles, published a report into electoral fraud.

One of his 50 recommendations was a requirement for voters to produce personal identification at a polling station before getting a ballot paper, which the Electoral Commission has been recommending since 2014.

The Electoral Commission welcomed pilots of this, which are due to be held in some parts of England in May 2018. Others have expressed concern. The Labour Party, while welcoming much of the Pickles report, said plans for voter ID risked discriminating against those entitled to vote but who don’t hold appropriate ID. Some groups (such as the poor, the elderly and black and minority ethnic communities) are more likely to lack the requirements – for example, a passport or driving licence.

An end to the 15 year rule for overseas voters?

Following the 2015 General Election, the Conservative Party promised to fulfil its manifesto commitment to end the rule whereby UK citizens who have moved overseas can only vote in UK general elections for up to
15 years.

The Cabinet Office is working with the electoral community to deliver a new system and the previous Government had committed to put this in place in time for the 2020 election. The snap election now means that the next scheduled election is due in May 2022.

Is a Bill likely?

There are dozens of outstanding recommendations from various reviews, as well as initiatives underway to improve registration of under-represented groups, such as students and disabled voters, and to allow anonymous registration of victims of domestic violence.

There is potential for a lot of activity. However, the previous Government indicated that a dedicated electoral reform Bill is unlikely in the near future. It suggested that some measures, particularly relating to overseas voters, could be brought forward in other Bills.

Meanwhile, the devolved administrations could introduce reforms ahead of England as they take on greater responsibilities for devolved elections. Wales, for example, is investigating the potential for votes at 16 and proportional representation in local government elections, which would bring it in line with Scotland.

A new Public Service Ombudsman with no ‘MP filter’

The previous Government published a draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill in December 2016 which has yet to be introduced to Parliament.

The draft Bill sought to abolish the existing Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) and the Local Government Ombudsman (but not the Housing Ombudsman), merging their existing responsibilities into a single Public Service Ombudsman (PSO) to offer a modernised and simpler system for investigating complaints about a public authority.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have their own unified public service ombudsmen covering devolved public services.

By convention, the Parliamentary Ombudsman (PO) and the Health Ombudsman are the same person (the PHSO). Currently, all complaints to the PO must be made through an MP – the ‘MP filter’ – a feature unique
to the PO, that was designed as a temporary measure to help deflect complaints outside the PHSO’s remit.

The draft Bill sought to abolish this filter but give MPs the option to add their support to complainants. This was in line with 2014 recommendations by the then Public Administration Committee and a 2000 Cabinet Office review of the PO which found “almost universal dissatisfaction” with the filter. The filter was found to slow down the complaints process unnecessarily, and disempower citizens.

Complaints handles by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 working as expected?

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 introduced five-year fixed-term Parliaments to bring an element of stability to the Coalition Agreement.

The ‘snap’ 2017 election has prompted questions about whether the Act has succeeded in restricting the power of the Prime Minister to call an election at the time of their choosing and, if an early election can be arranged so easily, whether the Act serves any purpose. The 2017 Conservative Manifesto promised to repeal it.

The Act specifies that elections should take place on the first Thursday in May every five years. It also includes two mechanisms to trigger early general elections:

  • A House of Commons motion for an early parliamentary general election (requiring a 2/3 majority of the entire House if a division is held); or
  • A vote of no confidence in the Government, following which no alternative government is formed.

Professor Robert Hazell (Constitution Unit, UCL) has cautioned that there is a danger of judging the Act prematurely, on the basis of a single episode. However, the key question remains as to whether there are circumstances where an opposition party would not support calls for an early election.

The Act specifies that a committee to review its operation has to be arranged between June and November 2020 with the majority of the membership being MPs. Without the ‘snap’ 2017 election, this review would have begun shortly after the second, scheduled election under the Act.

The next general election is currently scheduled to take place on 5 May 2022.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament. More Key Issues posts will be published on this blog throughout June, subscribe via the homepage to get instant alerts.